Mythic Adventures

Sacred Stories from around the Globe

Archive for the tag “Mythology”

Episode 100 Celebration

For my 100th episode, I take time out to reminisce about how and why I started this audio blog. Click on the link below to listen (14:07).

Here’s a list of the first 99 episodes. You can get to them by clicking on “Older Entries” at the bottom of the screen.

The story of Saul and David from the Old Testament:

Episode 1: The Reluctant Giant

Episode 2: The Bigger They Are

A story from Jataka, a Buddhist text:

Episode 3: Dangerous Crossing Part 1

Episode 4: Dangerous Crossing Part 2

The Knights of the Round Table:

Episode 5: Bad Day in Camelot

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian text:

Episode 6: There’s Nobody Like Me

Episode 7: Gilgamesh Meets His Match

Episode 8: His Breath Is Death

[Episode 9: A Mythic Adventures Christmas Special]

Episode 10: Attack of the Bull of Heaven

Episode 11: Aftermath

Episode 12: Into the Darkness

Episode 13: The Old Man’s Secret

Episode 14: The Education of Gilgamesh

Stories about St. Francis of Assisi:

Episode 15: Those Crazy Franciscans

Episode 16: Knock-Knock

Episode 17: What Perfect Joy Is Like

Episode 18: Wolves, Lepers, and Thieves

Episode 19: The Sadistic Angel

Stories that focus on spiritual growth through problem-solving:

Episode 20: Personal Reflection

Episode 21: Meaningful Problems (Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors)

Episode 22: The Challenge of Holy Week

Episode 23: The Fortunate Exile (The Spanish story of El Cid)

Episode 24: The Problem is a Solution (The Ramayana—a Hindu epic)

Episode 25: Two Heads Are Better (The Shinto text Kojiki)

Episode 26: Not Quite Heaven (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

Episode 27: Some Serious Hoop (the Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh)

The Book of Mormon:

Episode 28: A Tale of Two Nations Part 1

Episode 29: A Tale of Two Nations Part 2

Episode 30: A Tale of Two Nations Part 3

Some personal reflections and testimonies:

Episode 31: Why Mythic?

Episode 32: Shave and a Haircut Part 1

Episode 33: Shave and a Haircut Part 2

Episode 34: Shave and a Haircut Part 3

Episode 35: Shave and a Haircut Part 4

Assorted topics:

Episode 36: Running from God (the Hound of Heaven)

Episode 37: Grace Bacon’s Dream (American autobiography)

Episode 38: When We Plan, Does God Laugh?

An interfaith series: How to Have a Mythic Adventure in a Monday-Friday World

Episode 39: Intro

Episode 40: One Step at a Time

Episode 41: Waiting

Episode 42: Why It Takes So Long

Episode 43: Vigilance!

Episode 44: Auspicious Adversity

Episode 45: Whatever Is… Is Right?

Episode 46: The Way of the World

Episode 47: Accepting the Adventure

Episode 48: Hard to Get

Episode 49: Finding and Seeking

Episode 50: Ears to Hear

Episode 51: The Masked Goddess

Episode 52: A Feathery Influence

Episode 53: Making Mistakes

Episode 54: Mistakes or Sin?

Episode 55: Perceval’s Great Mistake

Episode 56: The End of the World

Episode 57: Raging at God

Episode 58: The Trials of Job

Episode 59: Journey’s End

Episode 60: The Pursuit of Greatness

Episode 61: The Meaning of Life

Episode 62: The Progress of Souls

Episode 63: Enlarging the Circle

Episode 64: We Are Not Alone

Episode 65: What We Have Learned

Speeches and sermons on the teachings of Jesus:

Episode 66: Something to Offend Everyone Part 1

Episode 67: Something to Offend Everyone Part 2

Episode 68: Sparrows, Beetles, and Mites

Episode 69: Ask

Episode 70: Beyond Sacred Space

Episode 71: To See Him As He Is

Lenten Reflections

Episode 72: What Are We Focused On?

Episode 73: Where Are We Going?

Episode 74: What Are We Hearing?

Episode 75: What Do We Want?

Episode 76: What Are We Doing?

Episode 77: The Way

Episode 78: The Resurrection and the Life

Episode 79: Through the Sea

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Episode 80: Sail Forth!

Episode 81: Where Mariner Has Not Yet Dared to Go

Episode 82: The Open Road

Episode 83: The Profound Lesson of Reception

Episode 84: Impassive Surfaces

Episode 85: Inhaling and Divesting

Episode 86: After the Great Companions

Episode 87: I Give You My Hand

A series of lectures on early Christian history entitled The Dawning of the Christ Culture:

Episode 88: Intro

Episode 89: Jewish Beginnings

Episode 90: Rethinking Church (Way Back When)

Episode 91: A Major Decision

Episode 92: Culture Shock

Episode 93: Socrates and Plato

Episode 94: Paul and the Philosophers

Episode 95: Destruction of Jerusalem

Episode 96: Roman Persecution

Episode 97: Theology and Heresy

Episode 98: Emperor Constantine

Episode 99: The Imperial Church

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Episode 59 Journey’s End (Part 20 of Series)

To hear the audio version, please click on the link below (7:32):

Episode 0059 Pt 20

I have had much to say in these pages about adversity, disappointment, and even the loss of everything that the protagonists hold dear. But the world’s religious narratives are not, by and large, tragic. In most cases, the heroes and heroines of these stories are victorious in the end. Victory, however, is not simply a matter of attaining personal goals. In the process of trying to achieve their goals, something more important has happened to them. Those who surmount their problems become greater than they were before, in a variety of ways.

At last, after a long war, Rama faces his enemy Ravana and defeats him, freeing his wife Sita from her prison. Sita, too, must face one more terrible ordeal in order to prove that she remained faithful to Rama during her captivity. Once all of this has been accomplished, Brahma, ruler of the gods, tells Rama the truth about himself: that he is not actually the man Rama but the god Vishnu, born as a man in order to vanquish Ravana (Ramayana, volume 3, book 6, chapter 119).

Now, in retrospect, everything makes sense. His father Dasaratha had to exile him so that he could go to the forest and prepare for his fight with Ravana. Once in the wilderness, his meditations had to be interrupted by demons so that he could gain practice destroying them. The gods could not help him when he was desperate because he had to face Ravana himself. And Sita had to be taken from him so that he would hunt Ravana down and defeat him. Now it all comes back to him, and he sees that there was a plan—his plan—working  itself out all along.

Something more important than military victory has occurred: Rama has advanced in his development. As a result of his struggles, he is an entirely new person—or rather, he is finally aware of who he really is. Although he has achieved his goal of winning back Sita from her captor, what is really important is not his accomplishments but the change that has come over him as a result of what he has accomplished.

The Hebrew scriptures contain many stories and, consequently, many moments of victory. Jacob, the supplanter, becomes Israel, a prince. Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, emerges as a governor in Egypt. The Hebrew slaves are liberated from bondage in Egypt. The land which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is settled by their descendants. David, for so long a fugitive, becomes king. The people of Judah return from the Babylonian Captivity and rebuild their society under the spiritual direction of the scribes.

But in each of these cases, too, something important has occurred over and above the attainment of the heroes’ goals. In each case, the hero has become a qualitatively different person as a result of his adventures.

After more than five hundred incarnations, the future Buddha attains enlightenment and becomes the Buddha in truth. This is not simply one achievement in one lifetime but rather the culmination of all of his achievements during all of his incarnations. And the result is not simply the attainment of a goal but the transformation of the hero into something greater than he ever was in any of his previous lives.

In the New Testament gospels, Christ rises from the dead and continues to teach his disciples (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21; Acts 1:1-11). Then, on the day of Pentecost, his Spirit empowers them to speak for him with eloquence to people from all parts of the known world (Acts 2). At Pentecost, we see Christs’ disciples as we have never seen them before. No longer mere fishermen, tax collectors, or harlots, they have now advanced to the status of ambassadors for the King of Kings.

In the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Christ arrives to establish his kingdom in America (Book of Mormon, III Nephi 11-26 (Kirtland ed:  5-12)). He teaches the people a new way of life, one that transcends the categories within which they have customarily lived. As a result, their society eventually rids itself of poverty, class divisions, crime, and war (Ibid., IV Nephi 1:1-18 (Kirtland ed: 1:1-21)). People are healed of their bodily illnesses and of all ill-will toward one another. They are no longer Nephites or Lamanites, for they have become one people. They have done far more than achieve a goal; they have advanced to a higher way of life.

Gilgamesh travels to the underworld and learns what he wants to know about mortality. But he does more than that: he becomes wise. Prince Arjuna learns a number of things about Krishna, but he, too, does more than that: he gains the ability to live for Krishna only, putting aside the attempt to enjoy the fruits of his actions.

In each case, something far more important than victory has occurred. The heroes have changed. Indeed, they have changed at such a fundamental level that all aspects of their lives are affected, especially those aspects that are normally considered secular. They do not just feel different; they are different. Nor do they need to go out looking for opportunities to tell anyone about their transformation. The change is obvious.

In retrospect, we can see that this transformation is not an afterthought on the part of the storytellers. Rather, all the obstacles the heroes faced were intended for this purpose: to mold them into exemplary individuals.

Episode 58 The Trials of Job (Part 19 of Series)

To hear the audio version, click on the link below (9:18):

Episode 0058 Pt 19

[All passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are from Tanahk: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).]

Abraham is called a friend of God, but this friendship does not prevent Abraham from disagreeing and even haggling with God. (See Isaiah 41:8; II Chronicles 20:7. In the Christian New Testament, see James 2:23.)  When God tells him that He intends to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions God’s judgment:

Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?  Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.  Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:23-25)

God concedes the point and agrees to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah so long as fifty innocent people can be found within them. But Abraham does not stop there. He persuades God to reduce the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and at last ten. So long as ten innocent people can be found, God will not destroy the cities (vv. 26-32).

Of course, it turns out that even ten is too high a figure, so the cities are annihilated anyway. But the point here is that Abraham, an exemplar of Jewish faith—a “friend of God”—is shown questioning God’s judgment and negotiating with Him.

But the paradigm case of “talking back” in Hebrew scripture is that of Job. At the beginning of the story, Job is already an exemplary character. God Himself points to Job as “a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).  But the Adversary tells God that anyone would be exemplary under Job’s prosperous conditions. If his prosperity were taken from him, he would become blasphemous. To test this assertion, God permits the Adversary to wipe out Job’s material possessions and destroy his family. Job is grieved, but he still prays and accepts the new turn of events without complaint (vv. 20-22).   Unsatisfied, the Adversary suggests that the test be carried out a step further: Would Job still be so patient if he were given a painful physical affliction? Once again, God allows the Adversary to carry out the test, and once again Job does not turn against God (Job 2).

But the majority of the story is about a long conversation between Job and three neighbors. They invite themselves over to see if they can help, but instead they make matters worse. Rather than easing Job’s pain, they try to assuage their own bewilderment by offering explanations of what has happened to him. Unable to accept that a just God would allow a good man to suffer so greatly, they conclude that Job has sinned and is being punished.

Job has no patience for such talk. He defends himself, even though doing so implies that God is unjust. God has wronged me,” he declares (Job 19:6).

Would that I knew how to reach Him,

How to get to His dwelling-place.

I would set out my case before Him

And fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what answers He had for me

And know how He would reply to me (Job 23:3-5)

When God finally does speak to Job at the end of the story, He is stern but accepting. In fact, God’s disapproval is aimed not at Job but at his neighbors, for they “have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job” (Job 42:7, 8). Rather than punishing Job for accusing Him of injustice, God admits that Job has “spoken the truth about Me.” Not that God apologizes or repents of His behavior, but He at least does not strongly disapprove when Job complains about his plight.

There are at least two reasons why it is natural for the protagonists to complain about the turn of events in their stories.   First, they do not yet understand their situation as fully as they will later, and therefore it looks as if things are turning out badly.

Aeneas does not understand (and his mother Venus sometimes forgets) that he must be led by a difficult route so that he and his followers might be molded into founders of Rome: “men who [live] for war” (Aeneid, Book 5, v. 754).  This is not something that any of the gods—even his own mother—can give him.  He can achieve it only by facing his problems and surmounting them. As the Sibyl tries to explain to him, he must “[g]ain boldness from disaster” (Ibid., Book 6, v. 95).

On the face of it he has every reason to complain, and so does his mother, but complaining will do no good.  In order to achieve the victory he desires, he and his men must overcome the problems set before them. But because he does not fully understand that yet, his complaints are quite natural under the circumstances.

Similarly, it makes sense for Pyrrha to talk back because, according to the information she has available to her at this moment, it sounds like she is being asked to do something that is not right.

The heroes often do not know what the gods are doing, and precisely for this reason, they cannot be expected at all times to have complete confidence in the gods. Sometimes the learning experience itself undermines their confidence by presenting them with situations that seem unfair. Ironically, to be a person of faith does not always mean to keep believing in the gods. Under the most trying circumstances, to be faithful means merely to press on anyway even when the heroes’ confidence wavers, even when they cannot see how the gods could possibly help them now.

Second, it is natural for the heroes to talk back because they are being subjected to pain, and it is reasonable to protest when one is being hurt. Even if the pain is not physical, it is still very real. Change of any kind can be painful, and the heroes are being subjected to fundamental changes in their lives. Rama’s wife, whom he loves more than anything else in the world, is taken from him. Abraham must listen as God confesses His plan to destroy cities full of living human beings. At such moments, it would be unnatural not to cry out in protest.

In the latter case, in fact, God accepts Abraham’s protest and even goes along with him when he haggles with God. Whatever else it may mean to be a “friend of God” in the Jewish tradition, it does not mean that one must quietly agree to everything God says or does, without question or complaint. Apparently the God of Abraham thinks it is perfectly natural for His friends to talk back from time to time.

On the other hand, complaining, although understandable, is futile. The gods are not swayed by complaints, nor will they remove the difficulties that the protagonists complain about. After all, these are precisely the difficulties that the heroes and heroines must surmount in order to become who they are meant to be and fulfill their destinies. They have a job to do, and no one can excuse them from it—not even the gods.

In one of Christ’s parables, a father asks his two sons to perform a chore for him (Matthew 21:28-32). The first son talks back to his father and says he will not do it, but later in the day he goes out and does it anyway. The second son promises his father he will do it but never gets around to it. Jesus asks: Which of the two sons actually did what his father wanted? The answer, of course, is the first one. Although he talked back to his father, he ended up doing what his father asked. The other son said the right things but did not follow through.

The real test of greatness in these stories is not whether the heroes refrain from complaining or questioning the gods, but whether they go on and do what must be done, despite their protests.

Episode 57 Raging at God (Part 18 of Series)

To hear the audio version, click on the link below (5:10):

Episode 0057 Pt 18

In the Ramayana, Rama is the model of patience when the kingdom is taken from him, but when his wife Sita is abducted, he complains endlessly and rages at the gods.  At one point he finds he must cross the ocean in order to rescue Sita, but he has no way to get across. He prays to the god of the ocean for assistance, but he gets no answer. (This is from Hari Prasad Shastri, trans., The Ramayana of Valmiki (3 volumes) (London: Shanti Sadan, 1976), volume 3, book 6, chapter 21.)

For three nights, Rama prays without success. Finally he becomes angry and shoots powerful arrows into the ocean. He is, after all, a manifestation of Vishnu, lord of the universe, even though he does not realize it, so when he shoots his arrows into the ocean he gets an immediate response from the god. Even then, however, the god does not offer to help him get across. He merely gives him advice (Ibid., chapter 22).

Aeneas, driven toward his destiny of founding Rome, does not understand why the path to victory must be so hard. He complains that the land toward which he and his people are traveling is one that “ever drops below the horizon” (Vergil, The Aeneid, Frank O. Copley, trans. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), Book 3, vv. 496-497).  Nor does he think it fair that his mother, the goddess Venus, should fail to reveal herself openly to him and comfort him. She does what she can for him along the way, and at one point she visits him in disguise and offers guidance.  But as she turns to leave,

… a glow of light shone out

behind her head: her hair sent forth ambrosial

perfume; she let her train fall down full-length,

and walked in god-like majesty!  He knew

his mother, and as she hastened off he cried,

“What?  Your Son?  Heartless again you trick him—

you, too—with empty shows?  Why was your hand

not laid in mine?  Why could we not speak truth?”

(Ibid., Book 1, vv. 402-409)

Venus herself complains to Jove, king of the gods, when her son’s fleet is nearly destroyed by a storm at sea. “What, sir, has turned your heart?” she asks Jove. She even accuses him of betraying her (Ibid., vv. 237, 252).

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Jeremiah cannot help “presenting charges” against God even though he realizes that he cannot win the argument. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” he demands. “Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1, Tanakh).

Episode 56 The End of the World (Part 17 of Series)

To hear the audio version, click on the link below (6 min):

Episode 0056 Part 17

Just as it was to be expected that the heroes would make mistakes, so it is also reasonable to expect them to talk back to their gods and especially to express frustration. Here are the gods, perfectly capable of helping, and the best they can do is give obscure guidance by indirect means! And as a result, the protagonists make mistakes and must suffer the consequences!  Yet, however much the gods may sympathize with their plight, the heroes’ complaints are ultimately futile, for the heroes are capable of overcoming their problems, and they must do so in order to become the people they are meant to become.

The story of Pyrrha and Deucalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrates the problem (The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Allen Mandelbaum, trans. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993), Book 1).  The world has just been destroyed. Pyrrha and her husband Deucalion are the sole survivors of the human race. They do not know why this has happened, nor can they guess how to proceed. They are frightened, and they are unsure what the gods intend to do about them.

To pray now would be extremely risky. For all they know, perhaps the gods meant for them to be killed, too. From their perspective, what has happened does not make any sense. But they need help, so they pray for guidance. This turns out to be the right thing to do, because they are unable to understand their situation without assistance, but they have no way of knowing whether their decision to pray (and thus call attention to themselves) is wise or extremely unwise.

They receive an answer, but it is frightfully enigmatic. They are told to leave the temple, veil their heads, and throw their mother’s bones over their shoulders as they go. They are stunned. Pyrrha’s lips tremble, and she says that she will not desecrate her mother’s bones. Although she is afraid, her fear does not prevent her from talking back to the gods. What they have asked her to do seems disrespectful to the memory of her mother, and she refuses.

But Deucalion tries to decipher the oracle, surmising that it is not to be taken literally. He knows how easy it is to make mistakes when interpreting divine messages. The command must be a riddle… but what does it mean?

Pyrrha and Deucalion’s predicament illustrates the process I have been describing at its most severe. There is the shattering of the world as they know it, calling into question everything they have ever believed about life, themselves, and their gods. There is the pressure of immediate need, which requires them to act decisively despite their confusion and disorientation. There is the anguished cry for guidance. There is an unexpected reply—what might be an answer to their plea for direction—but it is dark, open-ended, obscure. Then there is the struggle to understand this new revelation, the attempt to make some sense out of the guidance received. But through it all, there is the quite human need to talk back to the gods.

Deucalion develops a hypothesis. The word “mother” is a reference to the earth. If that is the correct interpretation, then their mother’s bones would be stones. The oracle is commanding them to throw stones behind them as they walk. Pyrrha is encouraged by this possibility, but she does not dare hope for the best because she no longer has confidence in the gods.

They veil their heads, throwing stones behind them as they walk. “And who would have believed it!” Ovid says, tongue-in-cheek: the stones turn into a new race of people who will help repopulate the earth. Deucalion’s hypothesis turns out to be right.

The gods do not punish Pyrrha for talking back to them. On the other hand, she does so only because of an erroneous interpretation of their command.

Episode 55 Perceval’s Great Mistake (Part 16 of Series)

Click on the link below to hear the audio version (10 min):

Episode 0055 Pt 16

In most of these stories, mistakes reveal the need for more education. Perhaps the most dramatic example of such a mistake is the hero’s failure to ask “the question” in Chrétien de Troyes’ poem Perceval.

In the beginning of the story, Perceval displays a complete lack of concern for others. He detains three knights in the middle of a pursuit and is unconcerned about their need to hurry, even though he wants to be a knight himself. He is unsympathetic when his mother tells him the story of her grief, nor does he show any concern when she appears to have fallen dead. He cares nothing for the distress he causes to a maid whose tent he enters uninvited, even though he has ruined her life by entering the tent. He does not even care about King Arthur’s troubles, although he has traveled to Camelot to ask Arthur to make him a knight. As Arthur tells Perceval about his being disgraced and the queen being insulted:

The young man did not care a chive

for anything the king related,

and in no way commiserated

with his wife, shame, or suffering. 

“Make me a knight, my lord the king,”

was what the youth was heard to say,

“I’m eager to be on my way.”

(Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, trans. Ruth Harwood Cline (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1985), vv. 968-974.)

Throughout his boyhood, Perceval has been isolated from all other people except his mother, and he has grown to manhood concerned only about himself. His real education begins after his disappointing behavior at Camelot. A nobleman named Gornemant of Gohort takes Perceval under his wing and tries to teach him how to act like a knight. He tells him, among other things, not to prattle on like a child but to listen to others and to measure his words carefully.

Some of Gornemant’s advice begins to sink in. As a result of his new outlook, Perceval decides that he had better return home and check on his mother. The last he knew, she was lying on the ground looking like she were dead (vv. 1568-1592).

On his way home, he meets the maiden Blancheflor and senses that she and her people have a problem of some kind. However, because Gornemant has advised him not to talk too much, he does not ask Blancheflor about her troubles. Fortunately, she voluntarily shares her pain with him, and he opens up his heart to her. The next morning he goes out in battle against Blancheflor’s enemies and defeats them. This shows some progress on Perceval’s part (although his sensitive behavior is partly due to hormonal pressure, since Blancheflor is a beautiful young woman). But then the same old Perceval is revealed. He leaves Blancheflor just like he left his mother, without the slightest heed to her protests (vv. 1699-2975).

Now comes his chance for greatness. He spends an evening as a guest at the castle of the Fisher King. The king is clearly in some kind of physical distress. Perceval is immensely curious, and it is all he can do to hold his tongue and not ask questions. Furthermore, he is shown the lance that was used to pierce Christ’s side, and this, too, excites his interest. But he does not ask about it.

Perceval has questions, but his desire for respectability outweighs his curiosity. As he had done with Blancheflor, he remains silent. He does not realize that he is the one whose coming was prophesied, and that the Fisher King will be healed if Perceval simply asks “the question.” Because he is more concerned with his own reputation than with the troubles of others, he does not ask, and the king is not healed. In the morning, Perceval leaves the castle in disgrace (vv. 2975-3420).

He has begun to show a little sympathy toward others, but he has not yet learned true compassion, and that is why he fails to help the Fisher King. Because he is afraid to ask what might be considered a stupid question, he fails to speak the words that will heal the king and win himself a great name.

But Perceval’s failure is full of promise as well as foreboding. It is this great mistake that will teach him firsthand about pain and misfortune. And by becoming personally acquainted with suffering, he will eventually learn compassion.

He does not realize the magnitude of his error until he returns to Camelot in triumph after his many travels. Just as King Arthur and his knights are celebrating his homecoming, the Ugly Maiden enters the court and announces that Perceval is disgraced. Arthur and his knights are sorry to hear about his failure at the Grail Castle, but there is nothing they can say. They realize immediately that Perceval has made a grave mistake. Perceval is deeply ashamed. He vows that he will not stay two nights in the same place until he returns to the Grail Castle and asks the question he was supposed to ask (vv. 4603-4746).

This is not yet the correct attitude. Perceval is still thinking more about himself than about the pain he has caused the Fisher King and his people. His vow results merely from his desire to clear his bad name.

And so he goes out in search of the castle that no one can find unless it is revealed to him. For five years, he is “so severly tried/ that [he] would willingly have died…” (vv. 6381-6382).  In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version, written later, the hero renounces God, claiming that, if God were all-powerful, He never would have let him make the mistake at the Grail Castle in the first place. But in Chrétien’s version, Perceval appears to be altogether ignorant of God. (Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), book 6, p. 178.)

At last he meets a hermit who explains to him the story of his life. He failed to ask the appropriate question at the Grail Castle for the same reason that he let his mother die, the hermit says: because he does not care about anyone but himself. The only way he will ever meet the Fisher King again and clear his name is by learning to care about others (Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, vv. 6390-6435).

(What the hermit actually says is that Perceval failed to ask questions of the Fisher King because of the sin he had committed in breaking his mother’s heart. On the surface, it sounds as if he were saying that Perceval was wrong to leave his mother and that he was punished for this sin by being tongue-tied at the Grail Castle. But what he probably means, and is saying in simplistic terms for Perceval’s simple mind, is that Perceval erred in not caring that he was breaking his mother’s heart, and that it was this very lack of caring that caused him also to remain silent in the presence of the Fisher King.)

Perceval’s great mistake sets the agenda for the rest of his life. It shows him both who he is (a person who cares only about himself—hence his mistake) and who he can still become (a person who cares enough to ask about the pain of others). His failure is a kind of “pre-test.” It provides a baseline from which his subsequent growth can be measured.

The objective of these stories, after all, is for the heroes to grow to their full stature. The point is to learn from their mistakes, not to make no mistakes at all. In these stories, mistakes have educational value. While errors are often embarrassing or even humiliating for the heroes, they invite the heroes to recognize that they have more growing to do. Of course, as we have seen, certain kinds of mistakes are symptomatic of spiritual deficiencies that cannot be corrected. However, for many heroes, failure leads to greater insight and the possibility of greater proficiency.

These stories illustrate a way of life that is not dogmatic. People who make contact with their gods form tentative conclusions about the gods’ intentions and stand ready to change their minds as they are given clues that they are wrong.

Furthermore, the gods of these stories rely heavily on trial-and-error reasoning as an educational method.  Aeneas, the sons of Tate, Oedipus, the future Buddha, Perceval, and the disciples of Christ are all presumed intelligent enough to learn from their mistakes. This means, however, that they must be given the freedom to fail. It also means that the gods must correct them mercilessly when they do fail, for the heroes will not realize that they need to improve if they do not suffer the consequences of their errors. It is a difficult way to learn, but it is also highly effective, so long as the heroes can endure the process.

And that is an important point. While failure can motivate people to change and grow, it can also induce them to give up. This educational method entails great risk. Ironically, the willingness of the gods to let the heroes undergo such a process demonstrates their supreme faith in their stories’ heroes at precisely those moments when the heroes are in danger of losing their faith in the gods.

Episode 54 Mistakes or Sin? (Part 15 of Series)

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Episode 0054 Pt 15

In Virgil’s Aenead, the heroes also make significant mistakes. Although it is decreed by the gods that Aeneas and his people are to leave Troy for Latium, where they will found the city of Rome, none of the gods will tell Aeneas where he is to go or how he is to get there. “We built a fleet…” Aeneas says, “uncertain which way Fate led or where to stop” (Vergil, The Aeneid, Frank O. Copley, trans. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), Book 3, vv. 5, 7). Naturally, they commit errors along the way.

At first they settle in a new place and merely try to rebuild what they previously had. They name their ill-fated settlement “New Pergama” (Ibid., vv. 132-133). Since “Pergama” is another name for “Troy,” this means that they are simply trying to rebuild their home city in a new location, just as Aeneas’s friend Helenus has succeeded in doing (Ibid., vv. 346-351). But the gods have not called them forth from Troy merely to reconstruct their previous life somewhere else. They have been evicted from that city so that, after many trials, they may form a new society—one that will be fit to govern all the nations of the world (Ibid., Book 6, vv. 847-853). Before long they realize they have made a mistake and that they must leave New Pergama.

But they have made this error innocently. Before their journey to this place, Aeneas pleaded with Apollo to give him a clue:

Who will guide us, and where? 

Where shall we settle?

Grant, father, a sign. . . (Ibid., Book 3, vv. 88-89)

The sign came immediately, but it was cryptic. Unfortunately, the message seemed clear enough to Aeneas’s father, Anchises, and Aeneas and his fleet sailed for Crete on his advice. That is how they arrived at New Pergama.

Now they realize that they have erred, and Aeneas asks for better guidance. He is told that Anchises has misunderstood the oracle. Hearing this, Anchises tries again and this time turns out to be right (Ibid., vv. 90-191). But it is very much a guessing game. The gods communicate, but humans must hypothesize about the meaning of the gods’ message.

In Greek myth, too, it is common for protagonists to misunderstand oracles. Adults often try to prevent prophesied events by destroying the infants about whom the prophecies speak. But their actions serve only to bring the predictions into being.

King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes are told that their future child will kill his father and sleep with his mother. So when a child is born to them, they pierce his feet, tie them together, and leave him to die on a mountain. A shepherd finds him, however, and he is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. As an adult, he too is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother, and he too tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true. He leaves home so that he will be nowhere near his father or mother. Of course, his departure is a mistake, because it brings him one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy, a fact he does not realize, precisely because he is mistaken about who his father and mother are.

On one of his journeys he is insulted by a fellow traveler. In an early example of road rage, he kills the man, totally unaware that his victim is his real father King Laius. On his way through Thebes, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, becoming a local hero. He is invited to marry the newly-widowed queen, Jocasta (his real mother). Thus the prophecy comes true, precisely because of mistakes made by the protagonists intended to prevent it from happening.

The future Buddha spends an entire lifetime making a mistake. He becomes a spiritual aspirant and practices extreme asceticism. He is so hard on his body that he at last dies of hunger without having gained any spiritual advancement. Only in the final moments of his life does he realize what he has done (E. B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka: or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (6 volumes), (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995), Number 94).

The prophet Elijah falters at the high point of his career. Immediately after defeating the prophets of Baal, he becomes afraid of the queen and runs to God’s holy mountain for protection. God repeatedly demands to know why he has come uninvited (I Kings 19).

Christ’s disciples are frequently mistaken about what he is telling them. He warns them about hypocrisy and they think he is scolding them for running out of bread (Mark 8:14-21; Matthew 16:5-12). They panic during a storm at sea, seemingly unaware of his power to save them (Mark 4:40). While a large crowd watches, they are unable to rescue a demon-possessed person and Christ must step in and do it for them (Matthew 17:19-20).

Simon Peter is shown as most inept. When someone asks him whether Christ pays taxes, Peter answers Yes. Christ calls him aside and tells him the answer is No—and that he should have known better (Matthew 17:24-27). When Peter sees Christ walking on water, he tries to join him but trips and has to be rescued (Matthew 14:22-33). He argues with his Master about the importance of the cross (Matthew 16:21-23). When Christ needs him for moral support, he falls asleep (Mark 14:32-42). When he uses a sword in Christ’s defense, Christ rebukes him (John 18:10-11). Although he claims he will gladly die for his master, he later denies him to save his own life (John 13:36-38).

“How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Christ exclaims, and although his disciples may well have replied, “Amen to that,” instead they are amazed and misunderstand him again(Mark 10:24 (RSV)). [Although the original Greek manuscripts that are considered most authoritative omit mention of “those who trust in riches,” many English translations add this phrase anyway. See this passage in Kurt Aland, et. al., The Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (corrected)(West Germany: Biblia-Druck GmbH Stuttgart, 1983).]

But it is usually not sin or disobedience that causes these mistakes. Blunders occur in these stories because the heroes have not yet gained the maturity of outlook that will allow them to react to such situations correctly. The fact that they err is simply an indication that they have much to learn—that they have not fully arrived at the goal which their story is intended to illustrate.

Christ’s disciples are neither stupid nor disobedient. They do, however, fall short of the level of faith they are capable of having; and, because they lack faith, they also lack the ability to understand the deeper meaning of Christ’s words. But he keeps working with them anyway, because he has faith in them.

He criticizes Simon Peter severely, but not because he does not appreciate Simon. On the contrary, it is because Christ has chosen Simon as one of the leaders of his future church that he expects so much more from him than from the other disciples. It is fascinating how the gospels, which are collections of the stories told orally by the first century church, contain so many unflattering references to one of the church’s first great leaders. This fact alone seems to indicate that the church did not interpret Simon Peter’s mistakes as failures but as a significant aspect of his training. As the church retold each of his errors, they celebrated his moving ever closer to becoming “The Rock.”

So also there is great worth in the future Buddha’s mistake about extreme asceticism, even though it costs him an entire lifetime. What makes him a great soul is his ability to learn from his mistake. In the final moments of his life, he recognizes his error, and he carries that recognition with him into his next incarnation, forever wiser for the experience (Jataka 94).

Episode 53 Making Mistakes (Part 14 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

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Episode 0053 Pt 14

In light of the situation just described, we have every reason to expect the heroes of these stories to make mistakes. With only minimal guidance from the gods, it would be natural for the heroes to exhibit errors in their thinking and behavior. But this is precisely what we do not expect from them. As exemplars of their religious traditions, we expect them to be models of dignity, never faltering unless they become sinful or disobedient. Faltering frequently does occur in these narratives, however, even when the heroes are trying to do their best.

In a series of stories told by the Lakota Sioux, the sons of Tate are sent on a mission that is of utmost importance to the world. [The stories to which I am referring are nicely woven together in D. M. Dooling, ed., The Sons of the Wind: The Sacred Stories of the Lakota (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). The scholarly source from which Dooling’s book was derived is James R. Walker, Lakota Myth, ed. Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).] Unfortunately, they do not know where they are supposed to go or exactly what they are supposed to do when they get there. Their grandfather Wazi is sent to give them guidance, but they do not know him because he was banished to the edge of the world when they were very little. Consequently, they do not trust him. They believe that he is Iktomi, the famous trickster who wrecked their home when they were children (Dooling, 57-62).

And so the Sons of the Wind are given the monumental task of establishing the four directions of the world and, in the process, of bringing into being what we now call the “year”—and yet their only guide is a mysterious helper whom they do not trust.

One of the sons, Okaga, welcomes the old man, and this is the right thing to do in this case. Nevertheless, there are no easy answers in this story, for on another occasion the brothers believe they are following Wazi and in fact are following Iktomi in disguise (Ibid., 77-81).

In the world of Lakota myth, it is possible even for the most diligent heroes to be fooled from time to time by Iktomi or by the demon Gnaski. Even Okaga, the noblest of Tate’s sons, leaves his brothers at one point and endures a treacherous journey home because he has been tricked into believing that Woope, whom he loves, is in trouble (Ibid., 99-102).

In the Lakota stories the aim is not to be one who is never fooled, but instead to get back on track promptly. Even to do this, however, the heroes must constantly be on their guard. Those whose lives are ruined by Iktomi are those who fail to think things through carefully. But thinking is no easy task, for Wisdom is no longer available to guide people. The trickster Iktomi was once Wisdom personified, but he himself was deceived and corrupted. In a world where Wisdom has become a menacing trickster, those who rely on thinking to get through their problems must expect to make mistakes all along the way.

Episode 52 A Feathery Influence (Part 13 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

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Episode 0052 How To Pt 13

In the Mesopotamian flood story Atrahasis, the necessity of divine clue-giving (as opposed to outright revelation) is explained as the result of an oath made by one of the gods. Early in the story, the hero and his god communicate directly:

Now there was one Atrahasis

Whose ear was open (to) his god Enki.

He would speak with his god

And his god would speak with him.

(Atrahasis I, vii. In Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)

Enki is “the talking god” in Mesopotamian narratives. The rest of the divine assembly can barely tolerate humans. In fact, the other two of the top three gods (the top three being Anu, Enlil, and Enki) soon develop a hatred toward humans, who are too numerous and make too much racket. They try to destroy the human race by spreading a disease among them. For a time they appear to succeed, until the human Atrahasis complains to Enki, and Enki tells Atrahasis how to stop the plague (Atrahasis, I, vii-viii).

Enlil and Anu try again to wipe out the human race, this time by drought. But once again their plans are foiled by Enki, who reveals to Atrahasis how he and his fellow humans can end the drought (Ibid., II, i-ii).

Enlil and Anu have had enough. They make Enki swear an oath that he himself will destroy the human race by flood, and this time he must not divulge their plans to any human being.

Enki is bound by his oath not to communicate with Atrahasis directly, but that does not stop him from trying to communicate indirectly.  Atrahasis weeps and says:

Enki [would speak to me], but he is under oath,

So he will give [instructions] in dreams (Ibid., II, iii)

This, however, is harder work for Atrahasis. “Indicate to me the meaning of the dream,” he pleads (Ibid., III, i). Even though his name means “overly-clever,” Atrahasis doesn’t get the point. (John Gardner and John Maier (with Richard A. Henshaw), Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version (New York: First Vintage Books/Random House, 1984), 65, note 40.)

Finally, Enki comes up with an ingenious solution. He speaks to the wall of Atrahasis’s house, telling the wall what it is that he cannot tell Atrahasis. “Wall, listen constantly to me!” Enki commands. “Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!” (Atrahasis, III, i). Of course, Atrahasis is on the other side of the wall, but since Enki is not addressing him, the terms of his oath are satisfied. Or perhaps the wall passes the message on to Atrahasis like the whistling of the wind.  This interpretation agrees with the god Anu’s suspicion that Enki “made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order.” (W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 11-12. The quotation is from Atrahasis, III, vi.)  At any rate, the hero finally gets the message, builds an ark, and is saved from the impending flood.

In the Norse epic The Saga of the Volsungs, the god Odin keeps popping up unexpectedly as an old man who gives counsel. Although Odin is the ruler of this world, his interventions are subtle and, in most cases, anonymous. Sometimes he does not even make a personal appearance but communicates his advice through intermediaries (through animals, for example). But whether in person or secondhand, Odin does little more than give advice. He does not do for the heroes what they must do for themselves, even though, as the greatest of gods, he is capable of helping them.

On the one occasion in which he does intervene directly in a battle, it is not to help but to hinder. Just when Sigmund (one of his favorites) appears victorious in battle, Odin breaks Sigmund’s sword in half. (Jesse L. Byock, trans., The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), chapter 11). After receiving mortal wounds from his enemies, Sigmund dies knowing that Odin himself has decreed his death. He is cheered, however, by the knowledge that his unborn son Sigurd will repair the sword and avenge him (Ibid., chapter 12).

Odin is not so much interested in helping his favorites as in giving them opportunities to achieve greatness. Even in death, Sigmund shows himself to be a true hero in the Norse tradition, and that is what matters.

In most of the world’s religious narratives, however, the advancement of the plot toward the final objective does not depend primarily on divine visitations even if these do occur from time to time. Rather, divine beings play a much more fundamental, albeit more subtle, role within the story itself.

The narrators of these stories recognize a quiet force at work in human affairs. This force acts like a kind of cosmic Author, masterfully weaving peoples’ thoughts and actions into a story—a story that none of the participants totally understand or control. In some narrative traditions the Author may be one or more gods, while in others it is an impersonal influence that overrides the actions of the gods themselves. But whatever attribution is given to it, these narratives reveal an implicit faith that the course of human events is fundamentally right and that, for people of faith at least, things work out the way they are supposed to.

This is what Oedipus realizes just before his death. He has wandered for many years with no place to call home, carrying with him no other hope than Apollo’s promise that he will at last find a resting place. Now he has made his way to the sacred grove of the Furies at Colonus, and he is sure that this is the place. Apollo long ago told him that he would be given signs when he had found his destination, and that promise is about to be fulfilled. But Oedipus no longer needs signs. Praying to the Furies, he says:

I am sure of it now, sure that you guided me

With feathery influence upon this road,

And led me here into your hallowed wood.

(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. In David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972), Scene 1, lines 96-98.)

Oedipus is not alone in this respect. It is by a “feathery influence” that the heroes of these stories are guided toward their destinies. Few roadmarks exist, and those which do are hard to read. The heroes are not pushed along with heavy hand. They are influenced—quietly, almost imperceptibly, yet powerfully. Even when no miracles occur, these stories reflect the vast power of the gods (or at least the essential correctness of the structure of the universe) because, simply through the playing out of events, right wins out over wrong.

And this does not occur in spite of the plans and schemes of evil people. It is precisely by means of such obstacles that things turn out the way they are supposed to. Far more powerful than any isolated miracle is this “feathery influence” that makes adversity ultimately useful rather than destructive.

Episode 51 The Masked Goddess (Part 12 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

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Episode 0051 How To Pt 12

I’ve been saying that the gods in these stories often leave much for the heroes to interpret. This does not mean, however, that the gods cannot provide clues for the heroes’ benefit. In many of the world’s sacred stories, such clue-giving is the primary means of communication between gods and humans.

The goddess Athena could easily tell young Telemachus that his father Odysseus is still alive, but she does not, even though she wants him to go out and find his father. Instead, she comes to Telemachus disguised as an old seafarer. (This is from Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1963), book 1.) She tells him that his father is rumored to be alive, and she advises him to discover if the rumor is true. He takes her advice, but he meets opposition from some of the locals who want to keep him at home. Athena comes to his aid, but again only in disguise—this time as his trusted friend Mentor (book 2).

Telemachus sails for Pylos and speaks with old Nestor, from whom he hopes to obtain news about his father. Nestor knows nothing about Odysseus’ whereabouts, but he suggests that Telemachus travel to Sparta and ask Menelaus, whose voyage home was long and roundabout. Meanwhile, Athena remains with Telemachus. She knows full well where Odysseus is, but she continues to masquerade as Mentor.

Telemachus travels to Sparta and speaks with Menelaus, and it is there that he learns the truth: his father is alive, but a nymph is holding him captive on a deserted island.

Telemachus has had to work hard to receive this important news, but Menelaus, too, obtained it only after a struggle. During his voyage home, Menelaus was himself in desperate need of information. He knew that the shape-shifting god Proteus could tell him what he needed to know, but he also knew that the god would not answer his questions willingly. To receive information from Proteus, one must lay hold of the god and hang on tight. If Menelaus and his men could get their hands on Proteus and hold him no matter what, then eventually he would give up and answer whatever questions they asked (book 4).

That is what they did: they approached Proteus while he was sleeping and held him tight. The god awoke, startled. He changed into a lion, but they did not let go of him. He became a serpent, but they held tight. He even turned himself into water, but somehow they hung on.

At last the god surrendered and answered the questions they had come to ask. During their conversation, Menelaus happened to learn about the fate of Odysseus.

Athena could have saved everybody a lot of trouble by telling Telemachus the truth right in the beginning, but that is not how greatness is achieved in Greek myth. Telemachus and Menelaus both benefit from their struggles. To make things easier for them would be to cheat them out of the opportunity to accomplish great things.

Later in the story, Athena appears before Odysseus in disguise, too, but he is so far along in his development that such treatment is not necessary (book 13). He plays his part so expertly that Athena smirks and reveals herself to him. Making him her co-conspirator, she then disguises him and advises him to play the role of a vagabond. In his case as in Athena’s, the masquerade serves a purpose: it allows Telemachus, as well as Odysseus’ wife Penelope, to demonstrate their greatness under trying circumstances. To reveal his identity prematurely would make the game too easy for all the contestants, besides alerting Odysseus’ enemies to imminent danger.

Please click on the audio file for my brief commentary.

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